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book review

Nick ToschesHandout

As the boomers edge ever further from babyhood, a growing body of literature has risen to tell us that growing old is a carnival of unimaginable delights – thank you, Jane Fonda. But for those who think otherwise, there's always Nick Tosches.

You couldn't ask for a darker doomsayer than Tosches, the scabrous bard of Manhattan's grimiest precincts. His new book (at 63, he's written many) is a novel, though the hero is so Toschean as to cancel the label. He's a nihilistic, alcoholic scribe who's pretty much given up on the writing life. He passes the time by plumbing the depths of his soul, all the while knowing that "those who seek the truth should realize that there is nothing to seek." Oh, and by the way? He also picks up young girls in bars so he can rejuvenate himself by drinking their blood.

You heard right. Me and the Devil is dotted with vampiristic sex scenes that crazily parodize the truth that blood-sucking and sadomasochism are actually the two most popular backdrops for novels right now. And they're a natural fit for Tosches, since the outlaw cult hero hardly got to where he is by writing odes to Grecian urns.

But while this wild misogyny makes for uncomfortable reading, it best illustrates the writer's larger point: True connection is impossible, and we creep toward death alone. "It was not sex that I sought," he says. "I sought communion, sacrament, transubstantiation." Spoiler alert – he doesn't exactly get 'em.

So why read such a life-denying screed? Good question, because it hardly offers comfort in the storm. It's also a shapeless bag of a story, veering off on extended tangents about food, childhood and Japanese knife-handles. But the strong of stomach will enjoy panning its pages for frequent nuggets of satiric gold. In characteristic style, Tosches expertly mourns the old Manhattan while slash-and-burning the new; he calls gym rats "yuppie window vermin," while smartphones are "electric rattles for the overgrown slave-babies in the vast playpen of their yowling, gurgling nervosity." (It must be said that this guy is a truly great over-writer, a vanishing breed in our boringly succinct new 140-character tweetiverse).

Truth be told, the ranting here is so darkly hilarious that it's a shame when, after being visited by the actual Devil, our vampire with dentures decides to stop mixing his drinks with girl-plasma and cleans himself up in the usual way. In fact, it shames me to report that this Tosches-like guy actually joins a gym himself. I mean, we're talking Tosches, after all: the ultimate cigarette-cured barfly, biographer of boxers, mobsters and bluesmen. It's like Sid Vicious getting a spray tan and shilling for Jenny Craig.

Another quibble: the novel's ostentatious cameo appearances by Keith Richards, described by the hero as "one of the most remarkable gentlemen I've ever encountered." Keef, a gentleman? Apparently, since he returns the compliment by contributing this rushed blurb to the book's cover: "This is the best, from one of the best writers around." Alrighty then. But Tosches (or meta-Tosches) is the real rolling stone at this book's centre, and he gathers no moss at all. If there's a message to be taken here, it's that fleeting pleasures are better than spiritual contentment: pictures of pretty girls, good food and wine, great music and clothes. You may have to grab at them repeatedly from the dark cradle of depression, but things, he implies, are better than people at providing happiness: "Anyone who needs another person in a lasting way is just lacking," he says sourly.

Not true, you may say, and with good reason. But heck, someone has to put Jane Fonda's cheeriness to the test. And with its meditations on aging, Me and the Devil is actually slightly reminiscent of that old Fonda chestnut, On Golden Pond. It's just that the pond in question here is filled with skin-flaying acid.

Cynthia Macdonald is a Toronto writer and journalist.